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On Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland's Favorite Son

The Cleveland Cavaliers added a jersey to the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night, retiring the No. 11 worn by Zydrunas Ilgauskas for over a decade.

This was a can’t-miss event for me, as Ilgauskas is my all-time favorite NBA player. That’s a status he shares with many Cavs fans, which speaks to both how loved and respected he was by Cleveland and how little premium talent the franchise has had in its 40+ year existence.

Ilgauskas started inauspiciously. When Cleveland made him the 20th overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft, most Cavs fans had never heard of the Lithuanian center with the strange name. He missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury, and many Cleveland faithful expected this to be yet another wasted draft pick for a franchise that was mired in NBA no-man’s land.

Big Z endeared himself to the fans by working hard to get his feet right. He endured painful surgeries that essentially rebuilt his foot. It would have been easy, and fairly expected, for a foreign big man to just say enough was enough, but that was not Z.

He flashed his ability right away, earning all-rookie honors in 1997-98. Z also won MVP of the rookie All-Star game, the first foreign-born player to accomplish that feat.

His smooth shot, deft touch, strong rebounding, and ball handling skills were all something to behold from a 7’3” plodder. Unfortunately, he would play just five games over the next two seasons as his problematic feet required reconstructive surgery.

Once again, it would have been easy--and expected--for him to say enough was enough and call it a career. And once again, Z showed his heart and love of the game by fighting back.

I was fortunate enough to attend his first game back in Cleveland in the 2000-01 season, a home date against the high-flying Sacramento Kings. Z was slow up and down the court, but he proved lethal in the half-court sets, scoring 10 points while also blocking two Chris Webber shots in a single possession. He received a loud ovation from a nearly full (a rarity for that time) Gund Arena crowd.

Ilgauskas earned respect from the fans for playing hard, and with attitude. He was not a gentle giant, often flashing an elbow-y temper and not afraid to stand up for himself or his teammates. He was also eminently approachable in the community. Z embraced Cleveland as his home, a very visible and proud citizen of his adoptive city.

He only made two All-Star teams in Cleveland, but he was remarkably steady as one of the better big men in the league. Five times in six seasons he averaged between 14 and 18 points and from 7.5 to 9.3 rebounds. He finished in the top 5 in offensive rebounds and top-8 in blocks in all those seasons as well.

His ability to run the high post offense, a nod to his own hoops hero in countryman Arvydas Sabonis, opened open the lane for lots of drives. His pick-and-pop game was outstanding.

Z ranks first in franchise history in both blocks and rebounds. He is second on the career scoring list, trailing only LeBron James.

Ah yes, LeBron…

Cleveland’s king, in self-imposed exile, returned to honor his friend and longtime teammate. After much consternation leading up to the event, it barely registered a ripple; LeBron watched the game out of sight in a private suite, and he stood with other former Z teammates in a receiving line in the player entrance tunnel. Many folks in my section (215) didn’t even notice King James.

Z’s best seasons coincided with LeBron’s arrival in Cleveland, and arguably the greatest image in Cavaliers history was LeBron leaping into Z’s arms after the Cavs won the team’s first and only Eastern Conference title. It was a heartwarming moment between two great friends and excellent teammates, the two men who knew better than any what that unprecedented success meant to their “home” city.

The home in Cleveland is why Z’s 11 hangs from the rafters. He’s perhaps the most apt icon for the city the Chamber of Commerce could create. Owner Dan Gilbert mentioned this in his well-received halftime speech. Z still lives here. He recently became an American citizen, and he’s chosen to stay in Cleveland instead of Miami, where he spent a year with LeBron.

It’s that juxtaposition, choosing to stay in Cleveland over Miami, that epitomizes why nobody in Cleveland questioned retiring his jersey even if the rest of the nation raised a cocked eyebrow for honoring a historically mid-level talent. He’s the most beloved Cleveland athlete of the last 25 years, with only Indians great Jim Thome in the argument. For this city, my home even though I haven’t lived here in 15 years, that’s eminently worth celebrating.

I was proud to take my 8-year-old budding hoopster son with me. He never knew Z’s game, and he’s a loyal Rockets fan from living in Houston for three years. Yet it was important for him to see a truly beloved player get honored by a team that has seldom tasted even moderate success. It’s a lesson in respecting the game, the passion, and the success that can come even without winning a title.

Thanks for the memories Z!

Why It's Too Early To Write Off Anthony Bennett

“I’m just as surprised as anyone else.”

- Anthony Bennett upon learning he was drafted number 1 overall

Quite frankly, it doesn’t seem that Bennett’s dazed reaction has subsided much given his lackluster play in his rookie campaign.

After posting an impressive 16.1 points with 8.1 rebounds in 27 minutes per game in his lone season at UNLV, Anthony Bennett led many to believe he could have a promising professional career. However, Bennett’s ineffectiveness in UNLV’s first round upset loss to the California Bears in last year's NCAA tournament has continued into the start of his NBA career.

Listed at 6’8” with a 7’1” wingspan and 240 pounds upon drafted, Bennett came into his rookie year unprepared for the NBA. Prior to the 2013 NBA Draft, Bennett underwent rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder that has proven to hinder his development this season. Because of his shoulder injury, Bennett was not able to participate in the Summer League and came into training camp at 260 pounds, 20 pounds over his draft day weight.

Having ample valuable experience time missed, compounded with not focusing on his conditioning coming into the season, Bennett was already a step behind his fellow draft peers in terms of development. At the start of the season, Bennett was not able to get on the court for many meaningful minutes due to his inability to run up and down the floor without suffering from his complications of asthma and sleep apnea.

However, having barely cracked the Cleveland Cavaliers' rotation until recently, Bennett is finally showing signs of life. He has been able to improve on his conditioning on the court, which has mustered more minutes from Mike Brown.

“I give the kid a lot of credit, he’s had a tough start, a really tough start," Brown said of Bennett, per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Bennett’s two highest offensive usages on the court are what scouts had raved about. A quarter of Bennett’s offensive possessions, he uses his bread and butter spot-up shot for a putrid 0.59 PPP (points per play). Sixteen percent of the time, Bennett goes through his signature pop and pop role for a sordid 0.59 PPP per Synergy Sports. Over time with more experience, Bennett will improve on these low numbers when he becomes more confident in his own ability.

Bennett must learn to establish a post-up (8 percent) game, so it will allow him to become a more versatile offensive player. One of the major knocks on Bennett coming into the draft was his inability to shoot a jump hook when posting up. Often times at UNLV, his post-up moves would lead him to shoot a low percentage fade away shots rather than a simple jump hook.

In order for Bennett to get on the floor more consistently, he must improve his defensive awareness, the blueprint to the type of basketball Brown coaches. Scouts have always been very critical of Bennett with his lack of focus and hustle on the defensive end.

Kevin Love should be someone Bennett has on his speed dial to talk about how his workout and diet regime has allowed him to become a superstar. Like Bennett, Love came into the league overweight, but was able to trim his body weight to become a perennial All-Star.

Describing Bennett’s start to his career as a disappointment would be deemed an understatement. The undersized power forward is gradually starting to show flashes of the athletic talent that made him at least appear to be a strong lottery pick.

The Eastern Conference At The Deadline

Thursday at the NBA trade deadline, we saw a total of 26 players, seven second round draft picks, and zero blockbuster trades. On Friday, we covered how the 10 players that ended up on West teams will shape the playoff race, and now we are looking at the 16 that were sent to the D-League…whoops, I meant the Eastern Conference.

While the Western teams made a few smart, calculated trades to improve depth (Steve Blake to the Warriors) and cut costs (possible buyout for Jason Terry from the Kings), the East had the biggest deals of the deadline. The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).

The Brooklyn Nets traded their disappointing – but playoff tested – guard, Jason Terry, for the Sacramento Kings' disappointing – and never played in a playoff game – guard, Marcus Thorton. Thorton, who once averaged 21.3 points per game, is a solid sixth man and capable of scoring in bunches when needed though he has struggled badly this season. He will likely provide relief for Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson down the stretch of the season. However, adding his extra $730,000 in salary means paying a ridiculous $3.3 million in tax, bringing their total to over $88 million on taxes alone…for a team that won’t get out of the first round.

The Cleveland Cavaliers traded for 76ers' center, Spencer Hawes. He will likely anchor their team right to where they were destined to be before they traded for him…the lottery. Hawes is a talented 7-footer who leads all centers in three-pointers made and percentage, is an elite passer for his position, a good scorer and rebounder, and a capable body on defense when he cares. Forced to play on a hapless Philadelphia team, Hawes had no reason to try over the past few months, but as he heads into free agency this offseason, expect his production to go back up for the Cavs. Despite the addition of Hawes and recently acquired Luol Deng, this team is unfortunately still coached by Mike Brown, suggesting they are likely doomed to miss the playoffs and then ultimately lose Hawes and Deng to free agency for nothing.

Professor Andre Miller, PhD left his classroom for winter break on December 30th and has been M.I.A. ever since. However, after being traded to the Washington Wizards, you can rest assured Professor Miller will be making a teaching once again. Miller, who was restless under indecisive rookie head coach Brian Shaw will be a capable backup behind John Wall, likely helping lead this Wizards team to homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The Charlotte Bobcats made a good deal at the trade deadline. Say it with me: “The Bobcats did something right.” They traded valuable but redundant point guard, Ramon Sessions to the Milwaukee Bucks along with Jeff Adrian for Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal. Ridnour is a terrific backup point guard who can play behind or with Kemba Walker, while Neal is an outstanding shooter who won an NBA Finals game last season by scoring 24 points in 25 minutes!

In the only move that might affect the NBA Finals this season, the Pacers trading former All-Star forward, Danny Granger to the 76ers for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. Turner is a do-it-all forward who has fallen out of favor league-wide because he has failed to live up to the hype of a second overall pick. Turner should play with the first unit as well as anchor the second for the Pacers. His ball handling will allow George Hill, Paul George and CJ Watson to get free and take uncontested shots while giving them insurance –albeit expensive at an $8.7 million qualifying offer or whatever long-term offer he receives – in case Lance Stephenson leaves in free agency. Additionally, Allen started in the playoffs only two seasons ago and is a capable big man off the bench. Most importantly, Larry “The Legend” Bird signed off on this trade, thus, it must be great.

The last set of trades involved the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks. Each team gave up players that weren’t part of their future and received cash, second round draft picks, and laundry service for a year in exchange for helping another team out. The Heat traded Roger Mason Jr. and cash for a pick they will likely never see in order to open a roster spot for Caron Butler (Tuff Juice wants to go home!). The 76ers, who were involved in a league-high four deals during the trade deadline ended up with five second round draft picks and five players that won’t be buying property in Philadelphia. Finally, the Hawks acquired Antawn Jamison from the Clippers and enough cash to take him out to a nice dinner before buying out his contract.

Compared to the four West teams that made a deadline deal, eight of the top ten Eastern franchises made a deal with only Chicago and Detroit remaining inactive. Whether this reflects the fragility of the Eastern Conference standings (5th place through 11th is separated by just 5.5 games), or the strength of the mighty teams in the West (3rd place in the East would be 10th in the West) is anyone’s guess. With that said, all these moves outside of Indiana and Miami are moot because none of them are making the Eastern Conference Finals.

Indiana Pacers Vs. Miami Heat, Round III starts May 20th – Get ready, America!

Why The Cavaliers' Model Continues To Setup Failure

The logic of the Cavaliers trading for Luol Deng is entirely backwards. Cleveland seems to think making the playoffs proves they are a legitimate NBA franchise. The reality is you can miss the playoffs and be a legit franchise and you can make the playoffs and not be one.

Fix It: Cleveland Cavaliers

While the Cavaliers may lose a lot of games again this year, it is not for lack of trying, as they have paired their high draft selections with quality free agents in order to propel themselves toward the playoffs. They may not make it this year, but this teamís time is coming.

C.J. Miles Enjoying Shooting Role On Young Cavaliers

C.J. Miles is off to the best start of his career, averaging over 13 points and supplying Mike Brown with a potent shooter to surround Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack. The Cavaliers held an option on the final year of Milesí deal this season, but exercising it was a formality and heís cozied into playing part in the teamís core.

The Marquee Non-National Teams To Watch

While there are no direct criteria, my non-national teams have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Top-10 Lottery Teams That Could Make The 2014 NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans, Raptors, Pistons, Wolves, Cavaliers, Blazers, Wizards, Mavericks, and maybe even the Kings and Bobcats could find their way into the playoffs if a number of things go right.

Top-Five 2nd-Favorite Teams

In an NBA so rich with talent and intriguing storylines, how can you limit yourself to just one team? These five squads deserve second billing in your hearts and remote-holding hands.

Cavaliers' 2014 Salary Cap Outlook

This season should provide the Cavaliers with plenty of opportunities to analyze the talent they have on roster, which will be necessary since they will need to make some tough calls if they want to preserve enough cap space to sign LeBron James outright.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

Cavaliers Moving Past Being Defined By LeBron's Departure

The luck of the lottery, combined with the Cavaliers' young talent has made the ending with James easier to move on from. These days, the disappointment of that situation is a memory more than a motivating factor for Cleveland.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

The Lottery Lowdown

We have seen a whole lot of changes since the pre-Tournament issue of the Lottery Lowdown. March Madness gave us a few players to watch both this year and for 2014 while the Nike Hoop Summit and Combine helped clarify the picture in terms of athletic ability and positional versatility.

How Many Players Teams Acquire At Each Trade Deadline On Average

The Kings, Knicks, Rockets, Thunder and Cavaliers have been the most active teams at the deadline over the past decade, while the Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Lakers and Pacers have made the fewest deals.

Kyrie Irving Shouldering Heavy Burden For Cavaliers' Offense

The Cavaliers entered the season as a perceived playoff contender, but its reliance on Kyrie Irving seems substantial. Soon, losing will be tougher to swallow for these Cavaliers and this superstar. But for now, theyíre satisfied trying to improve on a daily basis, focusing on supporting Irving offensively.

Leroux's 2012-13 NBA Tier Predcitions

While the drop-off from the Heat to the rest of the Eastern Conference is severe, the Lakers, Spurs and Thunder have quick company in the second and third tiers.

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